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Archive for January, 2011

Racers, Start Your Engines

January 29th, 2011 Comments off

Flying Lizard Porsche/Riley Daytona Prototype

The racing season officially starts today!  The Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series is running its 49th annual 24-hour endurance race at Daytona as I type this.  And while the France family dumbed down the series back in 2003 with the introduction of the low-tech tube-framed Daytona Prototypes, the racing is exciting at least.  Endurance racing is supposed to be about patience and strategy, but this running is already off to a sprint-race-like start.  It’ll be interesting to see if the pace can be maintained while the little hand travels twice around the clock…

Audi R15 TDI Le Mans Prototype

The more relevant sports car series, the American Le Mans Series, has their winter test at Sebring early next month, with the racing commencing in mid-March.  Meanwhile, Formula 1 starts its season in Bahrain about the same time.  NASCAR also begins its long and boring season next month … but does anybody really care?  (Though it’s the most popular series in the U.S. – much like McDonalds is the most popular restaurant – it’s essentially a spec-series using outdated technology, and its huge fan-base has been in decline of late.)

Sebastian Vettel's 2010 Renault-powered Red Bull F1

But more importantly, Cub Scout Pack 350 held their Pinewood Derby this morning, and your author’s 7-year-old son took first place in his den!  Sure, the construction of the car was very much a father-son project (emphasis on the father).  After all, it’s unwise to hand over saws and power tools to a 1st-grader.  But the boy designed the profile, and repeatedly rationalized his design decisions based on the fact that we wanted to optimize the aerodynamics.

…And if that doesn’t solidify my credentials to bring you this blog, then I don’t know what does!

2011 Pinewood Derby "Blue Pirate"

Observations From an Auto Show

January 28th, 2011 Comments off

The Washington, DC Auto Show kicked off today.  And although it’s not the premiere event on most automakers’ calendars, it is an important occasion, given the vast intersection between the auto industry and policy makers.  It’s also the auto show that’s easiest for me to attend, given that it takes place in the city in which I work…

So, as I wandered through the automakers’ displays, taking note of the new models on the floor (…and I’m talking about the cars, not the barbie-esque spokespersons demonstrating how to recline the seats…), I made a few observations.  And here they are.

Fiat 500 Sport

Fiat is here. Yes, I’ve been excited about the arrival of the Cinquecento for some time.  And Chrysler … err, Fiat had quite a few on display in various colors and trim levels.  This is a nice car. ..It’s a small car.  (Grown people may not be able to fit in the back seat.)  But I think it will sell at least as well as the Mini Cooper (its only real competition) has done.  Molto bene!

Chrysler may be back from the brink, but its future isn’t certain. One of two automakers that the government saved from complete collapse (the other being GM), Chrysler finally has an updated line-up reaching the market.  It is much improved (the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is awesome, and the new Durango and Charger are impressive as well); but I get the feeling their first step post-rescue, while big, is still a little shaky.  I’m skeptical that any of these vehicles (other than the Cherokee) will sell in large numbers.  And it’s telling that their Fiat 500 display was the most crowded spot in the entire Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Fiat area while I was there.

Buick is relevant. GM started turning Buick around not long before the General found itself at the edge of the cliff.  Through their restructuring, the Buick brand was saved, and now has an expanded (and impressive) model line-up.  The Enclave is arguably the best looking vehicle in its class, the Regal GS is bad-ass (yes, I said a Buick is bad-ass), and the upcoming Verano is a small car for grown-ups.  Now, if only they could come up with better model names…

Acura isn’t. Honda’s premium brand, for some reason, has decided to make cars that nobody wants to buy.

Ford C-Max

Ford is on a tear. From where I stood, Ford had the biggest presence at the Washington Auto Show, and had the vehicles to back it up.  They’re making great cars lately – the new Taurus, Focus, Fiesta, and Explorer (not to mention the EcoBoost powertrains, as well as hybrids and pure electrics) are at the top of their class.  The new C-Max is impressive as well.  Ford was the only Detroit automaker that didn’t require government assistance – and now they’re flaunting it.

The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG isn’t nearly as attractive in person as it is in the pictures. Sad, but true.

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Right now, I’d rather be Hyundai than Toyota or Honda.  It used to be that the Korean imports could only hope to match the quality, performance, styling, and reliability of the two biggest Japanese brands.  Now Toyota and Honda would do well to aim for Hyundai.  Hyundai claims that the Sonata hybrid is designed to be the first hybrid you want to buy.  They may be right.

Mini is a brand. Sure, the modern Cooper has been around for a few years now, but it’s basically been thought of a sub-brand of BMW.  Now with the (ugly) Clubman and the (still ugly but I want one anyway) Countryman, they’ve got a whole line-up. And they don’t have any competition.  (Well, scratch that, due to my first observation above!)

Nissan may be a one-trick pony. With all the (well-deserved) hype about the Leaf, people may have forgotten that Nissan makes other vehicles, too.  Apparently, so has Nissan.  They still make some good cars, but their design language – which had gotten just a little avant-garde in a desirable sort of way – has taken a wrong turn.

2011 Audi RS5

Audi makes the best interiors.  And exteriors. VW’s premium brand gained a reputation for making the inside of their vehicles one of the most eye-pleasing environments into which a person could deposit him (or her) self.  That’s still true.  And the exteriors have followed suit.  Add to that cutting edge technologies such as Quattro, TDI, TFSI, and the aluminum space frame, and it’s no wonder Audi saw sales increase last year more than rivals BMW or Mercedes.

And finally, people need to be informed by folks who understand. The official auto show guide, in describing the 10 most efficient vehicles (as rated by the EPA), said that if a (all-electric) Nissan Leaf had a 14-gallon gas tank, it could travel over 1300 miles… What?  How does that work?  What good is a gas tank on an electric vehicle?… (OK, it works by calculating the energy content of gasoline – approximately 33.7 kWh per gallon – and falsely assuming that, because the EPA fuel economy label says that the Leaf uses about 34 kWh to travel 100 miles, it could travel over 1300 miles on the energy content of 14 gallons of gasoline.  The EPA fuel economy label also says the Leaf gets 99 MPG.  Which is a nonsensical metric for an electric vehicle.)

Sexism

January 19th, 2011 Comments off

This morning, while standing at the bus-stop waiting for the public transit system to take me to work, a woman walked up to the newspaper vending machine next to me to purchase her copy of the Post.  As she turned to walk away (after retrieving her print edition of what everybody else read online yesterday), she asked me, “Sir, would you like the Sports section?”

Now, I’m sure this unexpected gesture was born out of genuine kindness, pure and simple.  But, should I have been offended? I mean, if our roles had been reversed, and had I offered her the Style & Beauty section, would she have been right to feel insulted?

Bottom-line:  there are many things in this world which are, rightly or wrongly, associated with either men or women.  This includes cars.

There are vehicles that are traditionally for guys. Four-wheel-drive trucks.  Jeeps.  Muscle cars.  Anything with a loud exhaust.  And then there are “chick cars”. The VW New Beetle.  The Mazda Miata (until guys figured out it was fun as hell to drive around a race track).  And minivans.  (OK, minivans may be more stay-at-home-mom-schlepping-the-kids-all-around-town car than chick car.  But still.)

Of course, the lines are now blurring – at least when it comes to minivans.  And auto companies (or at least their marketing firms) realize it.  Take for example the “Rock Van” ads about the latest Honda Odyssey, or the “Swagger Wagon” spots about the Toyota Sienna.  (Meanwhile, OEMs like Chevrolet – who doesn’t have a minivan offering – position vehicles like the Traverse as the less demeaning alternative to the minivan.)

I wonder which gender-bin electric-drive vehicles will fall into, now that they’re becoming more and more available. I’ve been told that the Prius is a chick car.  I suspect that the Leaf may fall into that category as well, though the Volt has a more masculine presence.

The Tesla Model S?  I’ll take mine along with the Sports section, thank you very much.